Monday, August 5, 2013

Still Frustrating After All These Years

Have you ever had a conversation that drifts into a topic and then you try to retrace your steps to remember what you were talking about and how it got to the new point?

That happens to TigerBlog all the time.

It happened the other day. He and TigerBlog Jr. were talking about something, and then that ended up turning into this question from him: What was the most crushing Princeton loss you ever saw?

For the life of him, TB cannot remember how the two came to that subject. It's actually bothering him a little.

Anyway, it didn't take more than a split second for him to answer the question itself.

Princeton-Michigan State men's basketball, second round, 1998 NCAA tournament.

The game was played in Hartford, and TB remembers it like it was yesterday. It was snowy and cold outside, but he never had to leave the building, since his hotel was on one side of a mall and the arena was on the other.

Michigan State used four players who would start again two years later when the Spartans would win the national championship. In the 1998 tournament, MSU was the fourth seed, a very underrated fourth seed.

Princeton was the fifth seed. The Tigers were 27-1 on the year and ranked seventh nationally, between Kentucky and Utah, who would play for the national title later that tournament.

The Tigers had easily run past UNLV in the opening round and now were 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16, which would mean a rematch with the only team to have beaten them that year, North Carolina. The Sweet 16 that year was played at Kentucky's Rupp Arena.

Princeton fell behind 10-0 to Michigan State and fought uphill all game. The Tigers would be outrebounded by an astonishing 39-15, and yet the game would get close by halftime (33-31 MSU) and set up an excruciating final minute.

Princeton trailed by two when James Mastaglio knocked down a long jump shot, only to have his foot on the three-point line, which tied the score instead of putting the Tigers ahead. Mateen Cleaves, the two-time Big 10 Player of the Year who went on to a reasonable NBA career, was the only Spartan in double figures in that game, and he would destroy Princeton with a long three from the top of the key that put the Spartans back up by three. Cleaves would finish with 27 points.

The final would be 63-56, and it would be the end of the careers of Mastaglio, Mitch Henderson and Steve Goodrich, who went 39, 40 and 39 minutes in that game. Brian Earl went 40, and Gabe Lewullis went 39.

TigerBlog remembers vividly sitting behind a curtain with Goodrich prior to the postgame interview and feeling Goodrich's frustration and sadness at the cruel end of his Princeton playing days.

As for TB, he would have loved to see the Carolina rematch. It would have been difficult to win, but the Tigers had played the Tar Heels close twice in two seasons, and it would have been possible. Plus, just getting to the Sweet 16 would have been insane.

That is, without question, No. 1 on the list.

No. 2?

Probably the 2009 quarterfinal loss to Cornell, 6-4, at Hofstra, in what would be Bill Tierney's last game as Tiger head coach. Princeton dug a 5-1 hole at the half, tried to come back, fell just short and missed on the Final Four in a year that the team had all the pieces for a big run at it all.

Or the 2002 NCAA men's lacrosse championship game, when Princeton fell 13-12 to Syracuse after a huge comeback fell just short. Had there been 10 more seconds to that game, maybe five, TB is convinced it was going to overtime.

Or the Syracuse loss this past year, because TB knew in the moment that it was going to cost Princeton a chance at an at-large bid, which is what happened.

Or the football game at Harvard when Taylor Northrop missed a 50-yard field goal on the final play that would have won it, on a kick that still looks good to TigerBlog.

Or men's hockey against Minnesota-Deluth in the NCAA tournament, when the Tigers were up two late and then lost in OT.

Or women's soccer against Penn the year the Quakers used a 0-0 tie (does that even count, since it wasn't technically a loss?) to win the Ivy title and advance to the NCAA tournament. Princeton had a shot past the goalkeeper in overtime that was just knocked off the line by a defender.

Or women's basketball against Kansas State in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

And of all the other men's basketball games, the one that sticks out is the 1991 Princeton loss to Villanova in the NCAA tournament at the Carrier Dome in Kit Mueller's last game, when Lance Miller's floater with two seconds left was the difference. TB was alone in the football press box at the Dome when it happened, far from the basketball court, because he was having some issues with his old radio shack word processor and had to use something in the football press box.

Even after all these years, TB can still go back to the moment for all of those games and more and still feel the sting.

Fortunately, there have been many more days that TB remembers much more fondly.

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